His hero, Barry Sanders, played until he was 30, walked away and never looked back, even as those who adored the legendary Lions running back pleaded for his return.
“Barry had a lot more left to give,” said Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was 13 when the back he looked up to most of all retired abruptly following the 1998 season.
Physically, Sanders rushed for 1,491 yards, not unlike the 1,485 that Peterson just posted while winning his third rushing title at age 30. But mentally, Sanders was drained from all the losing. From either not reaching the playoffs or exiting quietly. From going 1-5 with one NFC title game appearance, not unlike Peterson’s 1-3 mark and one NFC title shot.
“Finishing your career with one playoff win would …” well, stink, Peterson said. “But what Barry had going on in Detroit was different than what’s going on here in Minnesota. I think we’re more than capable of going deep into the playoffs and winning a championship. There really are no excuses for us not going forward in these playoffs.”
The two-time reigning NFC champion Seattle Seahawks might beg to differ. As the NFC’s sixth seed, Seattle plays the No. 3 seed Vikings in an NFC wild-card game at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday. In what’s being forecast as one of the coldest games in NFL history, Peterson will pit his rushing crown against a defense that won its fourth straight scoring title (17.3 points per game), led the league in run defense (81.5 yards per game) and held Peterson to season lows for carries (eight) and yards (18) in a 38-7 rout at TCF Bank Stadium on Dec. 6.
Peterson said he’s approaching the rematch as if it’s “mine to win or lose.” That’s an oversimplification, but he is the focal point of throwback team built to win with defense, ball control, favorable field position and a limited number of mistakes. The Vikings will need all four of those elements to upset the favored Seahawks and win their first playoff game in six years.
How’d they get here?
In September 2014, the Vikings organization was rocked by the news that Peterson had been indicted on child-abuse charges in Texas. Peterson’s season ended after one game as he bounced from game-day inactive the first week to the commissioner’s exempt list to being suspended to finally being reinstated in the spring.
After initial confusion and conflicting press conferences days apart amid a public uproar, the Vikings, with league direction that was lacking initially, began to form a measured approach to resolving the situation with their relationship with Peterson intact.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Vice Chairman Lenny Wilf, part owner and the cousin of owners Zygi and Mark Wilf. “There is no playbook or rule book for how to deal with crisis. You just deal with it.
“We drafted him. We never had any problems with him. We always thought he was a good community guy.”
The Wilfs viewed Peterson’s seven-plus seasons of exceeding their character expectations as reason to accept his side of the story and his apology. They would allow him to move forward as a Viking after he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge and was punished by the league.
“It was very difficult last year in the heat of all that to get through it,” Mark Wilf said. “First, we knew what Adrian had done in the community. He had a history here where he did a lot of good things in the community. He paid a price for what happened.
“We also wanted to make sure we maintained the ability to be patient and have stability as a franchise. Over time, between coach [Mike Zimmer], general manager [Rick Spielman] and ourselves, we sat with Adrian, we sat with the league, we worked through a lot of things. I think everyone today is clearly in a different place.”
Resisting a ‘knee-jerk’ move
With ownership’s support of Peterson’s character, final say on all personnel moves and Peterson under contract, Spielman was armed with all he needed to make a football decision. Spielman had the breathing room to work through Peterson’s concerns about his family returning to Minnesota while ignoring several desperate attempts by Peterson’s agent, Ben Dogra, to bait the Vikings into losing their temper and trading or releasing Peterson.
“This may have been different 10 years ago,” said Mark Wilf, referring to when the Wilfs first bought the team. “We were not going to react to every media report, to every comment from this agent or that reporter or that person.
“The model teams are not knee-jerk. There is stability. We feel that over the past 10, 11 years here, we are bringing more and more of that here. Those are the teams that are winning championships, knocking on the door year after year. That’s where we want to be.”
Peterson made the transition back to normalcy easier when he rejoined the team almost two months before the start of training camp. In July, the team reciprocated the good will with a restructured contract with more guaranteed money.
What seemed unthinkable to many outsiders in April — harmony between Peterson and the Vikings — came to fruition long before the season started.
Other than Peterson himself, there isn’t anyone who had higher expectations for Peterson this year than Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner. If you remember, it was Turner’s San Diego Chargers who got steamrolled by Peterson when he set the NFL single-game rushing record of 296 yards in 2007.
“I’d say he exceeded my expectations, particularly after the way we played in the opener at San Francisco,” said Turner, referring to the 20-3 loss that saw Peterson gain only 31 yards on 10 carries.
“We leaned on him hard for a long stretch after that just to get back to where we felt we had some confidence. When he’s rolling, he’s a load.”
In Games 2-9, the Vikings went 7-1 with Peterson posting four 100-yard games and a 200-yard game. Meanwhile, Zimmer’s defense was battling for the league scoring title before injuries dropped it to fifth at season’s end.
“Adrian has exceeded expectations,” Zimmer said. “I don’t think we’ve exceeded my expectations. I think we could have done better offensively.”
Anyone who knows Peterson knows he fell short of his expectations. Yeah, he became the eighth player in NFL history to win at least three rushing titles. Yeah, he became only the third player in his 30s to lead the league in rushing, joining Marion Motley (30 in 1950) and Curtis Martin (31 in 2004). Yeah, he’s 17th in career rushing (11,675) and needs only 605 more to move past Marshall Faulk into the top 10.
But, remember, this is Adrian Peterson. His goals include winning a Super Bowl first and foremost, playing at least six more seasons, and, oh yeah, surpassing Emmitt Smith’s career rushing record of 18,355.
“I’m real low on my individual goals this year,” he said. “But as far as my team goes, we’re right on pace.”
Can Seattle be slayed?
The last time these teams met, the Vikings’ offense generated 125 yards and just two third-down conversions while piling up 95 yards in penalties, four sacks and an interception that handed Seattle a short-field touchdown and a 21-0 lead right before halftime.
After the game, Peterson was angry when he told reporters, “You definitely have to give credit to Seattle for coming in and forcing us to do things differently. They were just a better team. They were more aggressive, more physical and they outcoached us as well.” Asked to explain how the team was outcoached, Peterson said, “in so many ways” before also directing more blame at the players as well.
This week, Turner said Peterson’s comments were a non-issue for him.
“I’ve been doing this too long,” Turner said. “Players get emotional about things. When you look at that tape, I’m not sure there are a lot more opportunities to give Adrian the ball than we gave it to him. Obviously, Adrian wants the ball.
“We have a lot of guys who want the ball. Mike Wallace wants the ball. But when we have balance and we play good, he gets his carries. When you don’t convert third downs, you’re just not going to get enough plays.”
Since that game, Peterson has averaged 21 carries while helping the Vikings to their first NFC North title since 2009. He said he “definitely” has enjoyed being a Viking this year and sees himself ending his career that way.
When that happens is anyone’s guess. The Vikings have proven they aren’t skittish about anteing up for an older Peterson. And, besides, Peterson might have found a new goal to chase.
Because his knowledge of running back history prior to the Sanders/Walter Payton era is sketchy at best, Peterson wasn’t aware until this week that Jim Brown holds a record eight rushing titles.
“Eight!?” Peterson asked.
“Can I catch him?” Peterson asked. “How many do I have? Three? I’d be 36, 37? Yeah, I can do that. My body feels good. I feel strong. I feel energized. I haven’t lost anything.”